A Wall Street Journal reporter, Sabrina Siddiqui, tried to put Narendra Modi on the defensive during his USA visit, by asking him about the treatment of “minorities” in India, the country’s human rights record and alleged backsliding on democracy.
The question was: “What steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?”
Modi’s answer was generic, and ran something like this: “I’m actually really surprised (you are asking this question)... Indeed, India is a democracy, and as President Biden also mentioned, India and America, (for) both countries democracy is in our DNA. Democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy….”. He added that there is “absolutely no space for discrimination.” (Watch this video for the full response of Modi to Siddiqui’s question.
The problem with this answer is that it is a motherhood statement, and likely to be dismissed as an attempt to evade the underlying issue. On the other hand, the problem with giving a more nuanced and honest response is that it may often seem to be self-condemnatory or an attempt at whataboutery.
But here is the kind of response that may have worked, even though a biased media may misinterpret this as well. Here is what Modi could have said instead.
“Your question is similar to asking a man whether he has stopped beating his wife. You know that there is no right answer to this question. But I will answer your question as well as I can, and also leave you with some questions to ponder over yourself when you have the time.
“India is a complex country and incredibly diverse. It is a country with 1.4 billion people, four times that of America. The probability of something going wrong, or some injustice being meted out to someone somewhere, is not zero - which would be the case with the USA too.
"The issue is whether we have a system that can render justice, and whether the rule of law works. To that question my answer is yes, though it would be fair to point out that the legal system is slow to correct injustices. But this is the case for all communities, and not only the minorities you mention.
“Secondly, I would like to ask you a counter-question. Is it the job of the journalist to just look for “facts” that fit a selected narrative or dig deeper into a question so that the reader and the world at large gets a fuller and more nuanced picture?
"Should one, or even a few, unfortunate incidents be elevated to the level of a widespread trend? Do you not, in America, avoid making general accusations about a community when one or more of its members indulge in acts of terrorism? Why will you not grant India the same privilege?
“Here is an example. In early 2015, there were a few minor incidents involving a handful of churches in Delhi, but the media quickly converted this into a narrative about attacks on Christians.
"Did anyone bother to check whether these were just isolated incidents, and whether religious places of other communities were not also facing such incidents? If the media had only bothered to do that, isolated “facts” would not have been easily converted into a narrative that an entire community was under attack by a “Hindu nationalist” government.
“Let me give you another example. My government passed a law in 2019 to fast-track citizenship to persecuted minorities in our neighbourhood, but the narrative that was built around this was that by leaving out Muslims, the law was essentially about excluding them.
"I ask anybody to disprove the fact that minorities in the three countries covered by the law are not persecuted. But what is the narrative you ran? That the law amounted to discrimination against India’s own minorities...
“Lastly, let me leave you with a “fact” to investigate. On 5 March 2015, a man accused of molesting a local woman was dragged out of jail, stripped, and beaten to death by a mob. Please do investigate the identity of the victim, and which community’s members led the assault. It will tell you something useful about how not to build narratives based on a few incidents and thin data.”
“If you are really interested, I would be happy to provide a counter-narrative that discrimination is often faced even by members of the so-called majority community in India, but I will not bring that up now for that is not what I was asked by Sabrina. If anyone is interested, my office will be happy to discuss the same with you in India.
“Your real question should not have been about the rights of minorities alone, but the rights of all communities, every individual. I would then have been able to discuss India’s real issues, and how we are trying to solve them. Let's remember, the concept of a minority is contextual. But there is no minority smaller than one, no majority greater than all citizens put together."
“Let me finally assert that India will protect all its people and its democracy, but it does not help if unfortunate incidents are weaponised to paint an entire nation as bigoted and unfair to its minorities. Democracy and justice are always works-in-progress, and it would be good if one democracy does not judge another too harshly when both have issues in making things right in complex situations. Thank you for listening”.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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